Black Christmas, 1974

You guys, it’s 2015. HAPPY NEW YEAR. Hope you had a pleasant new years day! Mine was pretty busy, what with all of that laying around in a satin romper and long socks drinking tea and eating a sizeable number of rice cakes with peanut butter while listening to that Songza playlist 70’s Slow Dance. Kind of my favorite thing right now. While I was busy trying to decide whether “Beth” is a good song (it’s like the lowest stakes, least-powerful power ballad, doesn’t that count for something?), I figured I might as well talk about something I unequivocally love about the 70’s, which is of course, BLACK CHRISTMAS.

indexThere isn’t much I can say about Black Christmas that hasn’t already been said – it’s a template, it’s brilliant, it’s a hell of a movie, they have a booze wreath,  it’s kind of seminal – which is why I’ve decided to just give a list which is as follows. This is by no means exhaustive, obviously pretty much everything in Black Christmas is awesome.

THINGS THAT ARE AWESOME ABOUT BLACK CHRISTMAS

BLACKXMAS0161. The Billy cam is super malevolent.

Of course we’re all aware of the POV Serial Killer movie shot – it’s always effective, even in terrible movies. Being watched is never going to be not scary (I’m intentionally leaving that double negative in), but in Black Christmas, Billy’s POV is noticeably unsteady and off-kilter. The young Michael Myers POV in Halloween is iconic and embodies the bland nature of the stabbing of Judith Myers. The point of view of a blank-faced child killer is chilling, but you just can’t beat the down-home shock of an out-of-control psycho on Christmas.

BLACKXMAS0652. Margot Kidder

What a gift to 70’s horror Margot was. Fresh off of De Palma’s Sisters, she’d go on to appear in Amityville Horror and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (whatever, I liked it). Her role as Barb in Black Christmas is one of her best loved horror roles. Whether she’s telling off boring old Claire or ruining Christmas dinner by discussing turtle sex or trying to get minors to drink alcohol or spelling fellatio, she’s consistently a joy to watch.

BLACKXMAS0873. The phonecalls.

Black Christmas just turned 40. Let’s face it – a lot of things that are 40 years old don’t quite hold up. Captain and Tenille’s marriage. Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby” (you guys, that shit was number 1. I like Paul Anka but that song’s terrible). (Try as I might to come up with a film example, it’s difficult, 1974 was a  golden year for film). Anyway, Billy’s phonecalls to the girls are still as shocking, bizarre, and terrifying as ever. Not to mention infectious. The fellow and I can’t sit through Black Christmas without wailing “LIKE HAVING A WART REMOVED” or “WHAT YOUR MOTHER AND I MUST KNOW IS” at least a few times. And as many voices as Billy uses on the phonecalls, there is only one phrase he says in a regular speaking voice – “I’m going to kill you.” Goddamn right, Billy. Goddamn right.

BLACKXMAS0644. Claire’s Dad’s  (James Edmond) Concern Face

I don’t know, I just like it.

BLACKXMAS0665. When Keir Dullea destroys the piano. Keir Dullea in general.

First things first Keir Dullea, as Jess’ dickish pianist boyfriend Peter has his work cut out for him – he’s a jerkface, he doesn’t respect her choices, he’s selfish, and rather than that slimy green cable-knit turtleneck sweater he might as well be wearing a shirt that says I’M A PSYCHO KILLER. He also happens to be innocent, so, in the end, the world lost a mediocre classical piano player. Anyway, when he beats the piano to death to vent frustrations, he echos the dissonant piano-banging in the score, both explicitly (he’s capable of physical violence) and subliminally reinforcing to us, that he’s guilty. And if that wasn’t enough to convince us, that checkered blazer is fucking sleazy. See, that’s just good film-making.

BLACKXMAS0136. That Christmas tree is terrifying.

BLACKXMAS0827. The Canadian-ness.

As a horror fan first and a Canadian second, I have a soft spot for the the low budget horror films of the 70’s and 80’s that were shot in the Great White North. See, the 70s and 80s were a good time to make movies in Canada – a tax law called the Capital Cost Allowance made it so investors in Canadian-made films could defer taxes until the movie started turning a profit. A pile of classics were made here – some set in Canada, but many trying to pass Canada off for somewhere else (New England was a popular choice). Black Christmas is ambiguous about where exactly it’s supposed to be, but retains some charming Canadiana – there’s hockey, Art Hindle charmingly talks about taking Claire “oot” (we don’t actually talk like that except for when we do), and the two fellows who come to the door, enthusiastically offering to help the girls and then bragging excitedly about being included in a police investigation which is off-putting in its friendliness. Screenwriter Roy Moore is also Canadian, basing the script on a series of murders in Quebec.

BLACKXMAS1158. THE PHONECALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE/The Unicorn Death

There’s a reason the urban legend of The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs has endured – it’s really, really scary. In my babysitting days, I’d be up late with my knapsack of mostly horror videotapes and scare myself with the very idea that someone might be upstairs.  It’s horror at its cleanest and most pure – you’re at home where you feel safe. And someone else, a stranger, is there too. Give that some honest consideration and try not to piss yourself.

I haven’t spent a ton of time with the deaths in Black Christmas because they’re all universally great, but the hyper-stylized, death by glass unicorn scene never gets old. As a unicorn enthusiast, it’s a home run.

BLACKXMAS1139. When Jess goes back upstairs

When Jess goes back upstairs in an attempt to save her friends – this is not an act of stupidity to move the carnage forward. This is an act of bravery. Also, and rather unlike the virginal final girls to follow, Jess is not only a thinking, feeling, sexual being who wears a wooden crucifix around her neck, Jess is getting an abortion. She has plans in life and no one’s going to change her mind – she has autonomy over her body  AND she’s a goddamn hero. Party on, Jess.

BLACKXMAS13310. No resolution

So Black Chrismas ’06, right? What a festering shit bucket of a movie that was. Literally, Black Christmas ’06, you had one job, and managed to avoid the essence of what made the original so great. (Billy likes to kill sorority girls because really bad jaundice and incest. SNORE.)  In the end, we can speculate about who Billy and Agnes are, but we don’t truly know. And in the meantime, we leave Jess alone in the house with the killer after beating the wrong guy to death in the basement. The phone rings and rings, and we’re left with the grim realization that people die. Horrible things happen, and evil doesn’t take a holiday. John Saxon can’t help us, and neither can Santa Claus. A black Christmas indeed.

I forgot to mention the eye and the fact that Billy’s a screamer when he chases after Jess, but whatever, there’s ten things and I spot a glass of sparkling wine with my name on it.

Christmas Evil, 1980

Christmas-Evil-PosterCan’t a guy just be super into Christmas and keep tabs on the neighborhood children and punish inconsiderate coworkers without being chased around by a torch-baring mob, Frankenstein-style?

Such is the eternal question of Lewis Jackson’s 1980 Holiday opus, Christmas Evil (also known as You Better Watch Out and my personal favorite, TERROR IN TOYLAND). This beauty stars Fiona Apple’s Dad, Brandon Maggart, sadly cheated out of the 1980 Oscar, as Harry Stadling; toy factory employee, big brother, and Santa enthusiast.

Harry sees Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
Harry sees Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Young Harry’s trouble begins when he attempts to see Santa one fateful Christmas Eve. He sees Santa all right – it’s his father all dressed up and groping his mother. CONFUSION. Harry runs upstairs, shatters a snowglobe, and cuts his hand on the glass. Blood on the snow. Kind of his life motif.

In the present, adult Harry works kind of a bullshitty position at the Jolly Dream toy factory and, in his off hours, lives in a crazy Christmas hoarder house. He sleeps in his Santa costume and spies on neighborhood children, making a list (and presumably checking it twice) of good children who do chores and play with dolls and bad children who read Penthouse and talk back to their Mothers.

Later, Harry consents to work on the assembly line to help a co-worker who can’t make it to work and then catches the co-worker at a bar. At the grim company Christmas party, Harry watches a video from the President of the company who, from a beach, promises that if production increases, he will donate toys to the less fortunate children at the State Hospital (famous stock footage of Geraldo Rivera’s big exposé on Willowbrook State School, incidentally). He also meets George, the new hot shot at work. At around this point in the film, who knows whether it’s the realization that everyone exploits him or believes him to be a schmuck, or maybe just the excitement of the impending holiday season, but Harry becomes fully unglued, believing he’s the jolly man himself, and begins to action his big Christmas-ageddon. It is the latter half of the film that leads me to lovingly refer to this movie as the more festive Taxi Driver. SPOILERS AHEAD!

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Harry steals some toys from work and drops them off at the State Hospital. He leaves the asshole kid, Moss Garcia, a bag of dirt and offs some smug preppies at a midnight mass. He replaces toys his long-suffering younger brother was planning to give to his children with improved toys from Harry’s own collection. He exacts revenge on the co-worker who took advantage of him. He shows up at a random company Christmas party and is treated like a hero. So, more or less what Santa would do in an evening if he was a little more Old Testament.

His delusions now turned up to 11, Harry ends up being chased by a mob of angry parents. In an art-filmy ending, Santa Harry eventually ends up flying over a bridge in his sleigh-painted van, to either his death or possibly back to the North Pole – we’ll never know. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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Lewis Black’s singular vision for Christmas Evil (not his first choice of a title), was that of a black comedy, but Brandon Maggart’s nuanced performance pushes the film closer to a measured character study of madness. He’s quite the slice of life, a banal, hard-working middle-ager who embodies the goodwill of not just the season but also humanity, and his journey to punitive Santa killer is an interesting one. Significant shots of Harry primping in the mirror reference Peter Lorre’s sublime performance as Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s singular M. It’s a worthy homage; Harry Stadling has more in common than Travis Bickle or Frank Zito than he does with Jason Voorhees. Not to say Christmas Evil is of quite the same calibre as Taxi Driver or even of Maniac, but Maggart’s humanity and touch of melancholy makes it a more emotionally involving experience than you may expect from a film with the tagline “Better watch out, better not cry, or you may DIE!”

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If you’re looking for a Christmas double feature, Christmas Evil pairs nicely with Silent Night, Deadly Night – Christmas Evil’s dingy mid-life crisis turned surreal murder spree vs SNDN’s slasherific aesthetic offers two quite different killer Santas with a superficially similar premise.

Before I leave you with the remainder of your holidays, here’s a little wisdom from Harry Stadling, (remember, just because Christmas is over, doesn’t mean Santa’s not… watching.) – “Respect your mothers and fathers and do what they tell you. Obey your teachers and learn a whole lot. Now if you do this, I’ll make sure you get good presents from me every year. But if you’re bad boys and girls, your name goes in the ‘Bad Boys & Girls’ book, and I’ll bring you something – horrible.”

Straight up ahead – things I love about Black Christmas and 1980’s other big calendar killer – New Years Evil.

And hey, if we don’t speak before then, have a happy new year, ‘kay?

Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984

So starting a new blog in December, with all the busy-ness and celebrations and general merry-making was probably overly ambitious, but, oh well, there’s enough Christmas horror for at least a few years, I’ll be happy if I get the big three done this year! On to the film. 215px-SilentnightdeadlynightFor some reason, 1984’s Silent Night Deadly Night, captured the hearts and minds of the good God-fearing people all over this great nation more than any other killer Santa movie. And by ‘captured’, I mean, infuriated and incensed. Parents and critics were pissed. Hey, blame the ultra-conservative 80’s. People definitely didn’t want to see a sweet, innocent young boy repeatedly and systematically traumatized ’til he grows into a strapping young All-American dreamboat who then goes on a murderous rampage on Christmas. Or maybe they just didn’t want to see Santa impale a topless girl on a stag head. How much did everyone hate this movie? I recommend you-tubing Siskel and Ebert’s on-air review of it. (Shame! Shame! Shame!)

But now we know better, and can fully enjoy Silent Night Deadly Night not just for its camp or supposed shock value, but for being a solid slasher with some genuinely great moments. Oh yeah, I said it. I meant it. And I’m here to represent it.

Night-2-590x321At the top of the film we have a family on the way to visit catatonic Grandpa at an institution. Ma and Pa leave our hero, young master Billy in a room with Grandpa. Alone with Billy, Gramps is suddenly totally lucid and warns Billy that Santa doesn’t just give out presents, he PUNISHES those who are naughty, and if Billy sees Santa, he’d better run. By the way, every time someone in Silent Night Deadly Night says the word “punish” or “punishment”, it always sounds like it’s in capital letters.

Billy is suddenly terrified of Santa (and now old people too, presumably), and his fears are confirmed when Billy’s parents decide to pick up a random Santa on the side of the road on their way home. Santa, fresh off of holding up a convenience store, only wants to kill Billy’s Dad and – presumably, rape his Mom, but it isn’t so much a rape as it is a perfunctory 80’s horror tit shot. You just can’t make a horror movie without one.

SILENT_3Flash forward to a few years later, Billy grows from a wide-eyed child to a homely ginger kid and he and his baby brother (who will one day grow into internet meme fame as GARBAGE DAY guy), are carted off to an Catholic orphanage. Mother Superior is of the opinion that Billy doesn’t so much need to heal from the horrific trauma of seeing his parents killed by Santa Claus, he should just ignore it, and any residual anti-social behavior should be disciplined away. She also dispenses with some good advice for raisin’ up your child – “When we do something naughty, we are always caught and then we are punished. Punishment is absolute, punishment is good.” Stick that on your cross-stitch.

Freeze-frame on ginger Billy wanting to be a good kid. Fast forward to years later, where Billy pretty much grows up to be Ken.kenNice Sister Margaret, the Dr. Loomis of the picture sets him up with a job at Ira’s Toys. SNDN then launches one of its most sterling moments: the Billy working girl montage. Billy lifts kids up to reach the high shelves, he punches his time-card, he straightens books while the boss nods – “Way to straighten those books, Bill!”, Billy opens a box with a box cutter (FORESHADOWING), douchey employee offers him J and B, and he holds up a carton of milk (“No thanks – today I’m having MILK!”), and then… Billy goes a bit green seeing the Christmas banner, possibly feeling PUNISH rising in his chest. The whole montage is perfect.

See, Billy is basically functional 11 months out of the year, but things start going rapidly downhill when his Boss forces him to play Santa. He’s a sweaty, nervous Santa but the more he threatens squirmy children with punishment the more compliant they are, so maybe he’s not that bad of a Santa after all. Screenshot-07_large

Shit gets real at the company Christmas party, when douchey J and B co-worker guy (poor man’s Joe Pesci) tells Billy’s love interest (that is, the girl he has shame boners over), that he has a special present for her and he has to give it to her in the back room. Just so you know, ladies, when a gross guy wants to give you a Christmas present in secret, it’s going to be his wiener, and you don’t want it.

The moment we’ve been waiting for finally happens – Billy snaps and strangles poor man’s Joe Pesci with Christmas lights. He then finishes off the rest of his co-workers – they’re drinking, they’re sinning, they fall under xmas PUNISH code. Whoa, what’s a real bow and arrow doing in that toy store?

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NOO! JOE PESCI!!!

He moves on to a residential neighborhood to dispose of aforementioned topless girl and her boyfriend. I should mention, it’s not just any topless girl, it’s b-Scream Queen Linnea Quigley! Here you get to see her in one of SNDN’s more classic moments – Quigley wearing nothing but short-shorts and antlers through her abdomen. Merry Christmas everyone!

SNDN’s other classic holiday-themed death is -spoiler, by the way – headless tobogganing. Essential. By the way, this shit out-grossed Nightmare on Elm Street on its opening weekend.

Well, it all ends up back at the orphanage, where more children are traumatized on Christmas and tragic and misunderstood Billy meets his untimely end. That is, Bill is misunderstood by the other characters, not us – we’ve had a good 45 minutes of exposition preceding the eventual holiday blow-up.

Controversy? What Controversy?
Controversy? What Controversy?

Occasionally, SNDN isn’t quite sure of the movie it’s supposed to be. It’s both a dead serious treatise on what precisely would cause someone to dress up like Santa Claus and kill a bunch of people, you know, aside from just for funsies because that’s lazy storytelling (and pretty much the premise of the extremely loose craptacular 2012 rehash), as well moments of intentional humor and camp. The filmmakers are obviously well aware of the implications of having a clean-cut young man stalk around in a dirty Santa suit demanding PUNISHMENT for babysitters who are having sex on pool tables that don’t belong to them.

Other than helpful Billy montage and the obvious holiday themed deaths, there’s also a great scene of Billy (Robert Brian Wilson, who I maintain is actually quite good in this), interrogating a little girl about whether she’s been good this year and then gifting her a bloody box cutter. Here’s where Silent Night Deadly Night gets itself absolutely right – the image is powerful, the scene is malevolently tense and yet – resolves with a wonderful, horrific absurdity. Little children unconditionally believe in the goodness of Santa Claus. Little children are poor judges of character. So, incidentally, are Billy’s parents.

silent-night-deadly-night-2What, exactly, is the central thesis of Silent Night Deadly Night? Post-traumatic stress disorder should be healed through non-judgement listening and behavioral therapy? That people do evil shit regardless of the season of goodwill towards your fellow man? That teaching children to trust that an all-knowing super-being enters their home on a single evening to lavish them with material goods if they’ve acting appropriately is kind of a strange concept? That the system can and does fail, leaving mass tragedy and misfortune in its wake? Maybe. Or maybe it’s simply that if a kid sees his parents killed by Santa Claus, he’s going to need some therapy, stat. And that I’ll remember fondly any movie with a headless body on a sled.

Oh, and it features this timeless Christmas carol, which unfortunately never took its rightful place as a Christmas standard.

Silent Night, Bloody Night, 1972

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If there’s anything low-budget shocker Silent Night, Bloody Night proves with certainty, it’s that the bulk of the scares are so strong that Bob Clark cribbed many of them for his 1974 opus Black Christmas, and that there’s no place like home for the holidays.

Possibly the earliest modern Christmas slasher (excepting of course that Tales from the Crypt segment with Joan Collins – maybe I’ll get to that slice of holiday cheer next year) poor Silent Night, Bloody Night has been wasting away on public domain for years, which means you can pull up a comfy chair, spike your eggnog and enjoy it right now:

(By the way, if you’d like to see a better version, there is a not-bad restoration from Film Chest. Personally, SNBN has my vote for a big Anchor Bay re-release)

In case you didn’t just watch it, here’s the synopsis which will contain spoilers:

It’s Christmas time, and super suave lawyer guy (Patrick O’Neal, PS.) and his Jane Birkinesque ‘assistant’ arrive at the old Butler mansion (a Death House, if one of the alternate titles is to be believed) with the intent to sell it on behalf of the grandson of the ex-owner (who set himself on fire, no big deal). They meet the town’s council, and intend to stay the night in the house. What should’ve been an extramarital copulation in musty sheets that haven’t been changed in years turns into quite a stylish and brutal axe murder. And it’s a felling axe, which are used specifically to cut down trees, which reminds me of Christmas trees, so you’d be hard pressed to find a more festive axe-ing. Silent-night-Bloody-Night-BloodUp ’til now there’s been some marvelous killer POV tracking shots, but roundabout now is when you’re really going to want to take out your Bob Clark bingo card.

The killer then starts making whispery phone calls to the town council, introducing himself, chillingly, as “Marianne” and coercing the phone operator to visit the Butler mansion. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Butler, the grandson in questions meets up with the daughter of the mayor (cult favorite and Warhol superstar Mary Woronov) and they set out to find out what’s going on with the missing sheriff. Everyone more or less ends up at Butler Mansion eventually.

silent-night-bloody-night-butler-house[1]At the Butler Mansion, we’re treated to some major revelations (maybe there’s a reason Jeffrey has such strong facial features) in the form of a sepia toned Grand Guignol flashback made all the more effective with public domain degeneration. During Butler House’s mental institution days, Grandpa Butler set all of the crazies loose to parade down the walkway, Night of the Living Dead style, in order to crash a fancy Christmas party the resident doctors were having. Well, they didn’t so much crash the party as much as they brutally murdered the doctors and stole their booze. Keep an eye out for more Warhol superstars – Candy Darling and Ondine both make appearances.

silentbloo19Later, a misunderstanding ends in gunfire and we learn the true identity of Marianne – a person from the past, just looking to be with his daughter for Christmas and also to terrorize everyone who’s ever wronged his family. As one does.

Of note is Silent Night, Bloody Night’s use of the revenge motive, a device that would become tired and rote in later slashers. While many lesser slashers spend a couple of minutes revealing the traumatic event that led so-and-so to stalk cheerleaders, SNBN really earns its revenge motive, crafting a respectable mystery laden with scandalous small town secrets.

As far as 70’s drive-in cheapies go, Silent Night, Bloody Night has a lot of unexpected suspense, directorial skill, and style. Obviously, it’s not without its issues, there’s some stiff performances and the long-winded, freeze-framed expository parts aren’t exactly filmic, but nitpicking a film like SNBN seems feeble when the foundation is so strong. While Billy would go on to make terrifying, lewd, and schizophrenic calls in Black Christmas two years later, Marianne’s calm, cold whisper is frightening in its focus. Director Theodore Gershuny’s point of view shots are uncomfortably long. Part of what makes that initial axe murder so – ( I hesitate to say rewarding, but if you’re cool with me calling an axe murder ‘festive’ I don’t see how that would be out of line) rewarding is how long we’ve anticipated it. By that point, the gore clips are just gravy. It’s always a treat when a public domain film with a misleading cover such as this:

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NOTE: Do not be upset when this young lady does not appear in the film. However, John Carradine is definitely in this film, so you have that to look forward to.

…ends up being so atmospheric and inevitably influential. Not to say Gershuny invented the slasher wheel, but dude had some impeccable influences, and Silent Night, Bloody Night sets an undeniable bar for all that followed. For all of its quirks, SNBN is relentlessly effective and certainly deserves a spot in the canon of early slashers that would go on to shape a subgenre.

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